On Memorial Day, we take the time to remember the men and women who have paid the ultimate price to keep our great nation safe and free. And so, this weekend, Ruth and I are remembering Pvt. Luke W. Brown, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, who died 154 years ago while serving to preserve the Union.
Luke was the half-brother of our great-great-grandfather Elmer. He lived in Millville, N.J. with his mother and siblings, and after his father’s death in 1859, he was the man of the house. He stood 5’7” tall, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion. He worked as a glassblower.
In September 1861, at the age of 17, Luke traveled to Philadelphia and enlisted in the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. A year and a half later, in January 1863, he wrote home in a letter that our family still has. The regiment was on the Rappahannock River, on picket duty. Since armies settled down for the winter, soldiers would build log buildings instead of living in their usual tents. In his letter, Luke mentions that his log shanty is about the size of the chicken coop at home. He also mentions the soldiers who shared it with him, Privates Pierson Westcott and Albert Murphy. Of particular interest to us, he also mentions Elmer, who would have been 8 years old and was crippled and attending school.
As the Gettysburg Campaign developed that June, Luke was captured, possibly at the cavalry fight at Aldie, VA. He was paroled in July, reaching Washington, D.C. about a week after the battle of Gettysburg.
That October, the 8th Pennsylvania was involved in a fight near Warrenton, VA. The regiment ran low on ammunition, but their request for more was denied. As Confederate cavalry bore down on them, the Union troopers tossed aside their empty carbines and used their revolvers. The 8th was overwhelmed and many, including Luke and Pierson, were captured.
They were taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, where Pierson died of severe smallpox on February 9. Eventually, Luke was transferred to Camp Sumter at Andersonville, GA. He would never leave. Records say that Luke died at Andersonville on either July 9 or September 9, 1864. The different causes of death—starvation, scurvy, diarrhea, and gunshot wound—probably reflect various aspects of the same root cause: scurvy. Not only can it bring on diarrhea, but scurvy can reopen old wounds since the body is unable to properly maintain scar tissue. Luke is buried in Grave #8286. We are indebted to Union prisoner Pvt. Dorence Atwater, the “clerk of the dead,” who kept his own secret record of the Union dead at Andersonville. Thanks to his records, we were able to visit Luke’s grave in 1999.
Only nine years old when his brother died, Elmer never forgot the last time he watched Luke ride away. When he grew up, he named his son after the brother who never came home. Our family has had a Luke Brown ever since, through five generations.